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The Jordan Peterson vs Matt Dillahunty Debate

Strawmanning

When Jordan Peterson debated Matt Dillahunty, what unfolded was a fascinating discussion about morality. Peterson didn’t seem very calm during this debate as he usually does, in fact, he seemed a little anima-possessed, constantly interrupting Dillahunty before the latter made his points.

 In the same way Peterson got stuck with Sam Harris on the notion of truth, the sticking point in this debate was about whether you could construct a moral system with rationality as your foundation. 

Dillahunty later accused Peterson of strawmanning his argument, and that was true. Peterson didn’t allow Dillahunty to finish his point, before excitedly interjecting. Peterson’s lack of composure ironically mirrored what happened with him the Cathy Newman discussion, except then he was the victim.

The Moral System

Peterson’s argument is an old one, he repeatedly refers to Jung, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche when making it. And according to Peterson, the atheists of our time do not seriously contend with issues raised by these authors.  Without a metaphorical basis for morality that can be represented through myth, all moral systems will collapse. Rationality cannot sufficiently ground morality because rationality is inherently self-interested, and does not address why human life is intrinsically valuable.

Dillahunty’s answer to this is that there are entirely selfish reasons to not want to kill people. There is no need for mythology, and there is no need to believe that human life is intrinsically valuable. He argues that he wants to live in a way to maximize his chances of surviving, and the less killing he does, the less likely someone will kill him.

If you tried to murder someone, you could always get caught, or someone might get revenge on you, or you might fail in your attempt to kill and get killed instead. A moral system based on rationality would not lead people to commit murder, because murder usually isn’t a rational thing to do.

Secular Humanism

Dillahunty is a secular humanist, he believes that a moral system that is updated by science and philosophy is the best moral system we can conceive of because unlike religion, it does not suffer from dogmatism and tyranny.

Peterson referred to the collapse of the Soviet empire as a specific example of a rationally based ethical system gone awry. But Dillahunty pointed out that while the Soviet empire can be seen as a manifestation of atheism, it cannot be seen as a product of secular humanism, so the analogy doesn’t work.

Herein lies the key argument. The reason why Peterson doesn’t accept Dillahunty’s distinction is because he divides the world into two types of moral systems, rationality-based systems and mythology-based systems. It doesn’t matter if you call your rationalist moral system secular humanism, because the problem is that it is purely based on rationality. And the instances we have ever had of rationalist moral system in the 20th century have ended in catastrophe.

Dillahunty’s response is: no, this is a different kind of system! Unlike the Soviets who modelled their philosophy after religion, secular humanism is the exact opposite of that. It is truth seeking, because it invites debate. It never asks you to believe in anything upon faith alone. The Soviets may have been atheists, but they were certainly not secular humanists. 

You are not an Atheist!

Peterson has famously told atheists like Sam Harris in the past that they are not truly atheists, and according to Dillahunty, it’s because that’s the only way he can rationalize his beliefs.

Since Peterson thinks that true atheism, if followed through to its logical conclusions will lead to murder, he can’t accept that he has atheist friends. Therefore, he concludes that atheists aren’t really atheists. Of course, Peterson’s argument is more nuanced than that. 

Dostoevsky

Someone in the audience asked Peterson why he thought atheists weren’t really atheists, and Peterson answered by referring to Crime and Punishment, Dostovesky’s famous masterpiece. Peterson doesn’t just think this is a cool story, he thinks this is the greatest novel ever written, or at least that you can make a very strong argument for that.

In the book, Raskolnikov is an atheist who is finishing his law degree. But he is poor, and his sister is marrying a despicable person she does not love because she needs the money, essentially prostituting herself. And there is an old woman, a miserable pawn broker who nobody cares about and who treats people horribly. This woman is not a good person, and the greatest moral act he could do, if only he was brave enough, would be to kill this woman, take her money, finish law school, and save his sister from a tragic future.

He had every rational justification to do this, and yet after he does, he eventually breaks down. Dostoevsky explains how despite the iron clad logic with which Raskolnikov justifies his murder, he is perpetually plagued with feelings of guilt and sorrow, unable to live with himself. Peterson thinks that if you were really an atheist, you be like Raskolnikov. That’s why he previously said that atheists are not really atheists.

What exactly does he mean when he says: “you’ll be like Raskolnikov”?

If you are an atheist, you should be able to murder someone if it made sense, and your conscience would not eat at you. Raskolnikov was able to pull the murder off, but despite his perfect reasoning, and successful execution, his conscience overwhelmed him. Peterson thinks that if you’re an atheist, you, like Raskolnikov only think you’re an atheist, but deep down, you’re not.  You implicitly value human life – your morality transcends pure rationality.

There are many rational reasons to kill people, as Dostoevsky demonstrates, and what prevents people in situations such as Raskolnakov’s from going through with the murder isn’t a secular rational system, because that can easily be manipulated towards selfish goals, it’s belief in God.

The idea isn’t that everyone would become a serial killer if they were an atheist but that if conditions presented themselves in the way they presented themselves to Raskolnikov – that is, if you were certain that killing this person would make the world a better place  and that no bad can come out of it – then under an atheistic framework, there would be no reason to abstain from the murder and no reason to feel remorse.

If anything, you should feel good about making the world a better place by getting rid of a wretched person.

By killing the pawn broker and stealing from her, Raskolnikov could free his sister from a life of slavery and misery, he could continue his law degree and help others, and he could put an end to the pawn broker’s mistreatment of others.

But if Raskolnikov didn’t believe in God, he wouldn’t have cared about killing the old lady. The problem is that he did. 

It’s as if a part of Raskolnikov knew what he did was wrong even though he could not rationally explain why it was wrong. Raskolinkov was the embodiment of the hyper rational agent who constructed a moral system without God and failed.

Nietzsche

Here we have our present age bent on the extermination of myth…. Man today, stripped of myth, stands famished among all his pasts and must dig frantically for roots. 

-The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche

Nietzsche predicted that the absence of Christianity would result in a massive psychological hole in western civilization. People would eventually latch on to totalitarian regimes because of their need for structure and mythology- these regimes will resemble religions in many ways.

Indeed, Nietzsche’s prophecy came true. State communism mimicked religion not only its hierarchical, domineering structure, but myths were created to worship the state and its ideals. The way in which people were persuaded to believe was no different from the way occult leaders constructed their following.

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!” As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

“Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us – for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling – it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”

The Gay Science, Nietzsche

Jung

This post presents the arguments made by Jung and later Campbell about the importance of myths. 

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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